LLR Books

MINOR DIVINITIES


According to the ancients' belief, every mountain, valley, plain,
lake, river, grove, and sea was provided with some lesser deity, whose
special duty was assigned by the powerful gods of Olympus. These were,
for instance, the Naiades, beautiful water nymphs, who dwelt in the
limpid depths of the fountains, and were considered local patrons of
poetry and song.

The Oreades, or mountain nymphs, were supposed to linger in the
mountain solitudes, and guide weary travelers safely through their
rocky mazes.

    "Mark how the climbing Oreads
    Beckon thee to their Arcades!"

                                    Emerson.

[Sidenote: Napææ and Dryades.]

As for the Napææ, they preferred to linger in the valleys, which were
kept green and fruitful by their watchful care, in which task they
were ably seconded by the Dryades, the nymphs of vegetation.

The very trees in the forest and along the roadside were supposed to
be each under the protection of a special divinity called Hamadryad,
said to live and die with the tree intrusted to her care.

    "When the Fate of Death is drawing near,
    First wither on the earth the beauteous trees,
    The bark around them wastes, the branches fall,
    And the nymph's soul, at the same moment, leaves
    The sun's fair light."

                                      Homer.

[Sidenote: Story of Dryope.]

A sweet and touching story was told by the ancients of a mortal who
was changed into a Hamadryad. This young girl, whose name was Dryope,
was a beautiful young princess, the daughter of Baucis, so bright and
clever, that all who knew her loved her dearly. Of course, as soon as
she was old enough to think of marriage, a host of suitors asked her
hand, each eager to win for his bride one so beautiful and gifted.

    "No nymph of all Œchalia could compare,
    For beauteous form, with Dryope the fair."

                          Ovid (Pope's tr.).

Fully aware of the importance of making a wise choice, Dryope took her
time, and finally decided to marry Andræmon, a worthy young prince,
who possessed every charm calculated to win a fair girl's heart. The
young people were duly married, and daily rejoiced in their happiness,
which seemed almost too great for earth, when they became the parents
of a charming little son.

Every day Dryope carried the child along the banks of a little lake
close by the palace, where bloomed a profusion of gay-colored flowers.

      "A lake there was, with shelving banks around,
    Whose verdant summit fragrant myrtles crown'd.
    Those shades, unknowing of the Fates, she sought,
    And to the Naiads flowery garlands brought;
    Her smiling babe (a pleasing charge) she press'd
    Between her arms."

                          Ovid (Pope's tr.).

One day, while wandering there as usual, accompanied by her sister,
she saw a lotus blossom, and pointed it out to her little son. He no
sooner saw the brilliant flower, than he stretched out his little
hands. To please him, the fond mother plucked it and gave it to him.

She had scarcely done so, when she noticed drops of blood trickling
from the broken stem; and while she stood there, speechless with
wonder, a voice was heard accusing her of having slain Lotis, a nymph,
who, to escape the pursuit of Priapus, god of the shade, had assumed
the guise of a flower.

    "Lotis the nymph (if rural tales be true),
    As from Priapus' lawless love she flew,
    Forsook her form; and fixing here became
    A flowery plant, which still preserves her name."

                          Ovid (Pope's tr.).

Recovering from her first speechless terror, Dryope turned to flee,
with a pitiful cry of compassion on her pale lips, but, to her
astonishment, she could not leave the spot: her feet seemed rooted to
the ground. She cast a rapid glance downward to ascertain what could
so impede her progress, and noticed the rough bark of a tree growing
with fearful rapidity all around her.

Higher and higher it rose, from her knees to her waist, and still it
crept upward, in spite of her frantic attempts to tear it away from
her shapely limbs. In despair she raised her trembling hands and arms
to heaven to implore aid; but, ere the words were spoken, her arms
were transformed into twisted branches, and her hands were filled with
leaves.

Nothing human now remained of poor Dryope except her sweet,
tear-stained face; but this too would soon vanish under the
all-involving bark. She therefore took hasty leave of her father,
sister, husband, and son, who, attracted by her first cry, had rushed
to give her all the assistance in their power. The last words were
quickly spoken, but none too soon, for the bark closed over the soft
lips and hid the lovely features from view.

    "She ceased at once to speak, and ceased to be,
    And all the nymph was lost within the tree:
    Yet latent life through her new branches reign'd,
    And long the plant a human heat retain'd."

                          Ovid (Pope's tr.).

One of Dryope's last requests had been that her child might often play
beneath her shady branches; and when the passing winds rustled
through her leaves, the ancients said it was "Dryope's lone lulling of
her child."

[Sidenote: Satyrs and Pan.]

The male divinities of the woods, which were also very numerous, were
mostly Satyrs,--curious beings with a man's body and a goat's legs,
hair, and horns. They were all passionately fond of music and revelry,
and were wont to indulge in dancing at all times and in all places.
The most famous among all the Satyrs was Silenus, Bacchus' tutor; and
Pan, or Consentes, god of the shepherds, and the personification of
nature. The latter was the reputed son of Mercury and a charming young
nymph named Penelope; and we are told, that, when his mother first
beheld him, she was aghast, for he was the most homely as well as the
most extraordinary little creature she had ever seen. His body was all
covered with goat's hair, and his feet and ears were also those of a
goat.

Amused at the sight of this grotesque little divinity, Mercury carried
him off to Olympus, where all the gods turned him into ridicule. Pan
was widely worshiped in olden times, however; and the ancients not
only decked his altars with flowers, but sang his praises, and
celebrated festivals in his honor.

    "He is great and he is just,
    He is ever good, and must
    Be honored. Daffodillies,
    Roses, pinks, and loved lilies,
    Let us fling, while we sing,
    Ever Holy! Ever Holy!
    Ever honored! Ever young!
    The great Pan is ever sung!"

                      Beaumont and Fletcher.

[Sidenote: Story of Syrinx.]

Pan was equally devoted to music, the dance, and pretty nymphs. He saw
one of the nymphs, Syrinx, whom he immediately loved; but
unfortunately for him, she, frightened at his appearance, fled.
Exasperated by her persistent avoidance of him, Pan once pursued and
was about to overtake her, when she paused, and implored Gæa to
protect her. The prayer was scarcely ended, when she found herself
changed into a clump of reeds, which the panting lover embraced,
thinking he had caught the maiden, who had stood in that very spot a
few moments before.

His deception and disappointment were so severe, that they wrung from
him a prolonged sigh, which, passing through the rustling reeds,
produced plaintive tones. Pan, seeing Syrinx had gone forever, took
seven pieces of the reed, of unequal lengths, bound them together, and
fashioned from them a musical instrument, which was called by the name
of the fair nymph.

            "Fair, trembling Syrinx fled
    Arcadian Pan, with such a fearful dread.
    Poor nymph!--poor Pan!--how he did weep to find
    Naught but a lovely sighing of the wind
    Along the reedy stream; a half-heard strain
    Full of sweet desolation--balmy pain."

                                      Keats.

Pan was supposed to delight in slyly overtaking belated travelers and
inspiring them with sudden and unfounded fears,--from him called
"panic." He is generally represented with a syrinx and shepherd's
crook, and a pine garland around his misshapen head.

[Sidenote: Silvan deities.]

The Romans also worshiped three other divinities of nature entirely
unknown to the Greeks; i.e., Silvanus, Faunus, and Fauna, the latter's
wife, who had charge over the woods and plants. Priapus, god of the
shade, was also a rural deity, but his worship was only known along
the shores of the Hellespont.

[Sidenote: Flora and Zephyrus.]

The fairest among all the lesser gods was doubtless Flora, goddess of
flowers, who married Zephyrus, the gentle god of the south wind, and
wandered happily with him from place to place, scattering her favors
with lavish generosity. She was principally worshiped by young girls,
and the only offerings ever seen on her altars were fruits and
garlands of beautiful flowers. Her festivals, generally celebrated in
the month of May, were called the Floralia.

  [Illustration: "A FAVORABLE OPPORTUNITY."--Thumann. (Vertumnus and
      Pomona.)]

                "Crowds of nymphs,
    Soft voiced, and young, and gay,
    In woven baskets bringing ears of corn,
    Roses and pinks and violets to adorn
    The shrine of Flora in her early May."

                                      Keats.

[Sidenote: Vertumnus and Pomona.]

Vertumnus and Pomona were the special divinities of the garden and
orchard. They are represented with pruning knives and shears,
gardening implements, and fruits and flowers. Pomona was very coy
indeed, and had no desire to marry. Vertumnus, enamored of her charms,
did his best to make her change her mind, but she would not even
listen to his pleadings.

At last the lover had recourse to stratagem, disguised himself as an
aged crone, entered Pomona's garden, and inquired how it happened that
such a very charming young woman should remain so long unmarried.
Then, having received a mocking answer, he began to argue with her,
and finally extracted an avowal, that, among all the suitors, one
alone was worthy of her love, Vertumnus. Vertumnus seized the
favorable opportunity, revealed himself, and clasped her to his
breast. Pomona, perceiving that she had hopelessly betrayed herself,
no longer refused to wed, but allowed him to share her labors, and
help her turn the luscious fruit to ripen in the autumn sunshine.

[Sidenote: Sea deities.]

The lesser divinities of the sea were almost as numerous as those of
the land, and included the lovely Oceanides and Nereides, together
with their male companions the Tritons, who generally formed Neptune's
regal train.

[Sidenote: Story of Glaucus.]

One of the lesser sea gods, Glaucus, was once a poor fisherman, who
earned his daily bread by selling the fish he caught in his nets. On
one occasion he made an extra fine haul, and threw his net full of
fish down upon a certain kind of grass, which the flapping fish
immediately nibbled, and, as if endowed with extraordinary powers,
bounded back into the waves and swam away.

Greatly surprised at this occurrence, Glaucus began chewing a few
blades of this peculiar grass, and immediately felt an insane desire
to plunge into the sea,--a desire which soon became so intense, that
he could no longer resist it, but dived down into the water. The mere
contact with the salt waves sufficed to change his nature; and
swimming about comfortably in the element, where he now found himself
perfectly at home, he began to explore the depths of the sea.

    "'I plung'd for life or death. To interknit
    One's senses with so dense a breathing stuff
    Might seem a work of pain; so not enough
    Can I admire how crystal-smooth it felt,
    And buoyant round my limbs. At first I dwelt
    Whole days and days in sheer astonishment;
    Forgetful utterly of self-intent;
    Moving but with the mighty ebb and flow.
    Then, like a new fledg'd bird that first doth show
    His spreaded feathers to the morrow chill,
    I try'd in fear the pinions of my will.
    'Twas freedom! and at once I visited
    The ceaseless wonders of this ocean-bed.'"

                                      Keats.

Glaucus was worshiped most particularly by the fishermen and boatmen,
whose vessels he was supposed to guard from evil, and whose nets were
often filled to overflow through his intervention.